Living off the Land

The three of us moved cautiously past the ruins of the house and into the overgrown back garden. We were moving carefully as the long grass hid ankle-turning bricks, toe-stubbing baulks of timber and shin-barking pipes. We had learned of these obstacles the hard way in other similar sites, there being quite a few of them in our area. We knew the garden contained apple trees and we were checking on the ripeness of this season's crop. The garden was comparatively large which was unusual. Few were in this part of the country where land was at a premium. The house had been a single storey dwelling, commonly known as a bungalow, another rarity. This was in a street in an up-market part of town where the houses were all single storey and all of different design. We three lived in two storey, semi-detached structures differing only in internal decorations and colour schemes. Less affluent but at least they were still standing.

There along the remains of the back fence were the trees. The apples must have been ripe because they had all gone. Some other bunch of scrumpers had beaten up to the prize. We stared at the fruitless branches for a few moments and then turned to retreat. One of our group spotted something over in the corner beside the blackened remains of the burnt garden shed. "Spuds" he exclaimed. Carefully we moved towards the yellowed, grub eaten leafy tops of the tubers. There was a lone plant among the weeds. Scrapping away the top soil with bare hands we rapidly uncovered a handful of egg sized, thin skinned potatoes. Further digging with a piece of fence paling uncovered a couple more. Sorting them out fairly required a bit of bargaining, but all of us were quickly satisfied with our share. Then our leader spotted a pile of dried prunings. "Let's make a fire and roast them" he suggested. "I'll go home and get some matches while you two break up some of those sticks and get the fire ready". He was off and back in quick time. He must have run. We soon had a small fire crackling away and after the initial blaze had died down, tossed the salvaged vegetables onto the embers along with some more twigs. The potatoes were carefully watched and turned over periodically using two sticks. A smell of charred murphy's mixed with the odour of the burning apple wood and we sniffed appreciatively. A single blackened sphere was rolled out of the fire and a sliver of wood driven in to determine if it was cooked. The judgement was that sufficient heat had been absorbed and the rest were rolled out. Gingerly they were hefted onto the piece of paling previously used for excavating. With fingers and twigs the exterior carbonised shell was removed revealing steaming white, charcoal-spotted delicacies. Within minutes they were no more.

We weren't starving. On the contrary, it could be argued that we were the best fed generation of our century, meaning we received a balanced diet with adequate nutrition for growing boys. Yes, we were boys; six year old boys, living on the outskirts of London during World War Two. None of us were abnormally skinny but there was only one fat boy in our school and he was the local doctor's son. Doctors got well paid, often in kind by grateful patients who grew vegetables on allotments and reared rabbits in hutches, but had little cash. I said we were not starving, but we were always hungry, particularly for anything sweet. Many years later in my early twenties, I went on a camping holiday with three other lads. We had challenged ourselves to live off the land as much as possible. We had rifles, spear guns, fishing rods and our wits. We feasted on wallaby, native hen, abalone, crayfish, stingray, parrotfish and leather jacket. We fared well on this high protein diet and I periodically relive that most enjoyable week. But those potatoes and their contribution to my diet have been a particularly fond memory.

The greater need

About 10 years ago, as I was about to enter Central Station in Sydney, a very untidy man approached me. He was about 30 years old, looked pretty down and out, and was probably an alcoholic.

"Could you give me a dollar, mate, so I can buy some breakfast?" he said.

"A dollar?" I said. "That ain't gonna buy you any breakfast."

"I've already got a couple of dollars." he replied

You won't get much for that," I said. "Here's twenty bucks, mate. Go and get yourself some eggs and bacon and then go and have a beer on me."

"Gee, thanks, cobber," he said, and then was gone – to the nearest pub, probably.

I turned to enter the station but a woman wearing a charity badge stood in front of me and poked a tin can at me and said, "Would you care to make a donation to the XYZ appeal, sir?"

"What's it about?" I asked.

"It's a nationwide appeal for funds to help the poor and needy."

"The poor and needy," I said. "That's wonderful. How much does your organisation hope to collect?"

"$1,000,000," she replied.

"In that case," I said, "I most certainly do wish to make a contribution."

I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. I searched through the coins and found a five cent piece. I dropped the five cent piece into her tin can, smiled, and then turned to go into the station.

The lady called to me, "Excuse me, sir."

"Yes? Is there something wrong?"

"No, no, sir. We are always most grateful for donations of whatever size, but your five cent donation took me by surprise for I happened to notice that you gave $20 to a complete stranger."

"It's perfectly simple," I said. "You are collecting $1 million, nationwide, for the poor and needy. Our population is more than 20 million, so if everyone gives five cents you will attain your target and have quite a bit to spare. Charities ought only ever seek funding in small amounts from the population at large so that everyone gets to know and understand the value of helping those less fortunate than themselves, where even the widow's mite is welcomed as a treasure."

"Oh! I understand," she said, "but er, er, er, I cannot understand why you gave $20 to an apparent dipsomaniac."

"Quite simple," I said, "his need was greater than yours."

Graveyard Shift

Arnold was an amateur astronomer and knew that a certain star was going to disappear behind the moon and reappear about an hour later. To get a better view and out of the dazzle of street lights, he wandered into a churchyard with the idea of standing in the shadow of a yew tree. In the gloom, and with his eyes looking heavenward, he failed to notice an open grave immediately in front of him. In an instant, he found himself on the broad of his back. Although he could still see the stars shining, they were confined to a narrow rectangle slit.

He stood up, assessed what had happened and tried to climb out of the grave. His attempt proved futile as the wall surfaces crumbled to the touch and were slippery because of an earlier shower of rain. Despite it being summer, he was cold, and getting colder simply because he was only wearing a T-shirt and it had got wet when he fell into the grave. He resigned himself to the fact that he would have to suffer it until morning when someone was bound to come along and help him out. However, he was wrong about that. Shortly after midnight, with his teeth chattering, he couldn't help uttering aloud, "Im cold, I'm cold, ye gods I'm freezing."

What a shock he got when from up above, in the dark, he heard a voice, "I'm not surprised you're cold. You've gone and kicked all your dirt off."

The voice had a slur to it and Arnold guessed that his saviour was half-drunk or maybe an alcoholic.

"Thank God! Please help me out."

"No way, mate. You stay there where they put you."

"What are you talking about? Help me out."

"Don't be silly, cobber, you're dead. You just lie down and go back to sleep again."

"Don't be crazy, I'm not dead. I fell into this grave."

"There's all this dirt up here that you kicked off, but I found a shovel so I'll chuck it in and cover you up again."

No sooner had this been said, than a great heap of dirt landed on Arnold's head. His first thought was that he was about to be buried alive and there was nothing he could do about it.

Resignedly, he called out to the fellow up above, "I'm still cold, mate. Keep shoveling, don't stop, keep shoveling."

And that was how Arnold got out of his grave. You see, the drunk kept shoveling until he filled it enough for Arnold to hop out of it.

For Sale

Colin passed some "FOR SALE" lists to us,
Two lists each – Don't make a fuss,
Just write a piece – just make a choice
And when it's your turn, speak in a clear voice.

$40 – blockout curtains, one pair, quality guaranteed,
Cream, with blue butterflies – is there a need?
If, at some time, you can't get to sleep
You could count the blue butterflies instead of sheep.

A recliner exercise bike's advertised –
Do you lie down to get fit? – What a surprise.
Only $350 – good condition to wit.
I think it's much cheaper to garden to keep fit.

$75 ea. Now, here is an item that grabs my attention;
Two white cherry trees – does warrant a mention.
Bare-rooted or potted, spreading and weeping,
Must be collected – a thought for safe-keeping.

Here's one that is helpful – sheep manure for sale,
$4 a bag – that's more than ok.
In the suburb of Granton – seems a fair leap.
Would it be cheaper to purchase a sheep?

$50 – Wow! – There are 300 books – Romance and Mystery for sale.
The excitement of it all leaves me quite pale.
There is a dilemma, when all's said and done,
Would I last long enough to read every one?

Grandfather Time

Mad genius is an old, oxymoronic description, but in old Doolan's case it was perfect. At 72 years old he was still overloaded with brains but was nuttier than a health shop. His ability to construct the most elaborate electronic equipment from salvaged TV's, computers and mobile phones was extraordinary. His car and house were equipped with an amazing array of security, communication and robotic devices, all designed and assembled by him using the above-mentioned gear discarded by a wasteful society. That was the genius part. The mad part was his unswerving belief in the possibility of a time machine that would enable him to travel back and forth through the ages. His few friends regularly regaled him with the usual arguments concerning the impossibility of the concept, usually raising the "Grandfather Paradox". If you could go back in time and shoot your grandfather, then you would never come into existence, and thus could not have gone back and shot your grandfather. All to no avail. Doolan persisted with his dreams of time travel. Then he awoke one night with a brilliant idea. Dragging on a dressing gown, he strode purposely into his basement workshop and began assembling various components from shelves, drawers and boxes.

For the next few days he spent practically the whole time working, grudgingly stopping to eat and sometimes falling asleep at the bench. Finally the machine was finished and he considered how to test it. He stood and looked at the conglomeration of printed circuit boards, wires, batteries, flashing LED's surrounding a plastic garden chair. He turned and went upstairs to the kitchen and prepared a scrappy meal while thinking of the problem. While thoughtfully chewing on a bowl of baked beans and sardines he heard a noise like a paper bag being burst. It had come from the direction of his workshop. Jumping up from the table he scurried down the stairs and was confronted with an amazing sight. There on the seat of the chair was a small wire cage containing a white mouse and beside it a newspaper. He picked up the newspaper and read the date. It was tomorrow's! It was possible to send things into the past, and most importantly, living things that could survive the trip. His joy at his success was overpowering but only for a while. He quickly gathered his thoughts and worked out what he needed to do. Obviously he had sent the mouse and paper back from the future, so he had to go and get a mouse. This he did and the next day placed the animal in its cage alongside the newspaper on the seat. He then keyed in the time co-ordinates on the antiquated Wang computer and pressed the large red button secured to the arm of the chair. The machine hummed, the LED's flashed and the mouse and paper vanished with discernible "pop".

All the while he had been considering the way of testing the machine he had also been recalling the good natured jibes of his friends, particularly the "Grandfather" part. Now was his chance to show how wrong they were. He knew his grandfather had lived in this very town when it was a small collection of houses beside a railway. He knew where the house was and how it was still in good condition after over a hundred years. He went upstairs, pulled out a rifle from behind a wardrobe, loaded it and returned to the workshop. He sat down in the seat, placed the rifle across his knees, tapped in the time co-ordinates and then pressed the button. For the briefest of moments he experienced a faint tremor and was then aware that the temperature was distinctly lower. It was dark but above he could see the stars. Good; it was night, which suited his plan admirably. He set of in the direction of the railway and thence his grandfather's house. He found the place easily and slowly approached, holding the rifle at the ready. A dog in the house next door commenced to bark.

Inside the house his grandfather, at this time a man in his late twenties, was reading a book by the feeble light of a candle. It was very quiet and so he easily heard the dog. He also knew the dog and that it was usually a very quiet animal. Something or somebody was disturbing him. He rose and went into the hall, cautiously opened the door a crack and peered out. What he saw caused an immediate automatic reaction. Thieves were rare but not unknown in this frontier country. He reached behind the door, grabbed his shotgun and let fly at the individual carrying a rifle creeping towards the house. They were right, you can't go back and shoot your grandfather, but on the other hand…….?